Student Well-Being Opinion

Thank You, Ms. White, For Writing Me Off

By Marilyn Rhames — August 22, 2012 4 min read
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Most lovers of children’s literature know the tear-jerking, classic teacher-student memoir by Patricia Polacco entitled Thank You, Mr. Falker. It’s tells of Polacco’s battle with low self-esteem because at age nine she still could not read, and the persistent teacher who diagnosed her dyslexia.

Thank you, Mr. Falker. Just look at your little Patricia now!

If I were to write a children’s book, I’d have my own teacher to thank, though the story line would be more bitter than sweet. Unlike Mr. Falker, my second grade teacher, Mrs. White, told me that I was dumb. She yelled at me—at all the students in the class—and would secretly squeeze our little arms until it hurt. She was as close to the Miss Trunchbull character from Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a state-certified teacher could get.

Once while eating lunch in the cafeteria, I decided to leave my seat to tell Ms. White that today was my mother’s birthday. I adored my mother, and to see her happy and celebrating was rare and newsworthy. “Do you think I care about your mother’s birthday?” Ms. White barked. “Go back over there and sit down!”

Ouch! That spot still hurts.

So I went back to my seat and cried. That’s all I did in the second grade—I cried. The tears lead to subsequent years of being teased and called “The Black Chinese,” for when I cried my already small eyes got smaller. (For the record, my so-called Asian eyes are my best physical asset!)

But my life would change forever in second grade. I wrote a story about a little girl who found a fallen star. She put the star in a jar and placed it on her dresser. The star became her nightlight and with it there, she wasn’t afraid of the dark. But the star was very sad. It wanted to go back home and live in the night sky with all its star family. So one night the little girl went out into her backyard and let the star out of the jar. It flew back into the sky and twinkled with all the other stars. The little girl was never afraid of the dark again.

Ms. White made quite a fuss over my story. She told the whole class that I was a good writer and she read my story aloud to the entire class. She put a gold star sticker on my paper and hung it up on the “Writers’ Wall.”

If Ms. White—of all people—said I was a good writer it must be true. Writing has been a part of my personal identity ever since.

In 7th grade, I won the Illinois State Young Author’s Contest for my book Two Sizes Too Big, about a teenager who loses her boyfriend because she’s gained weight over the summer. I won again, though only Honorable Mention, in 8th grade for my science fiction book The Duplicating Machine.

Thank you, Ms. White.

In high school, I wrote my way to earning nearly $20,000 in college scholarships.

Thank you, Ms. White.

And after spending two years as a bio-chemistry major, I joined the university student newspaper and wrote a column called “Something to Think About.” I fell even more deeply in love with writing, and switched my major to English. Upon graduation, I had a position at People magazine in New York City waiting for me.

Thank you, Ms. White.

I ended up working at other major publications and earning a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University. After taking a reporting and writing course, I received a stunning evaluation from Carole Agus, who was widely feared as one of the toughest professors in the journalism school. Agus wrote: “I believe that Marilyn is destined to emerge at the top of her profession. Her ability is unlimited. If she joins a newspaper, she will live on that newspaper’s front page.”

Thank you, Ms. White.

Today is the first day of school for students, and I’m just as excited as nine years ago when I started teaching. At the end of last year I decided to hang up my science teacher’s lab coat and become the 7th/8th grade writing teacher. Now I get to share my beloved craft with students everyday—and I can use my own published work as mentor text!

Thank you, Ms. White. You were the first person to recognize my gift. Your treachery magnified your goodness, the few times you chose to show it. You were so rarely kind to me that I latched on any positive word you said as if God himself had spoken. You literally wrote me off, and then in one special moment turned me on.

Of course, Ms. White’s method of inspiration was less than ideal. For every child like me who managed to scrape out some good despite the abuse, there are a dozen precious souls who may have never recovered.

Now that I am a teacher, I dream of being a Mr. Falker in some child’s life. Heck, I really dream of being a Patricia Polacco!

Still, I forgive Ms. White and wish her well, wherever in life (or death) she may be. Had she not written me off when I was seven*, I would have never written such a well-written post about her.

*I was seven years old, not eight; updated 8/23/12

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.